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John Cage

There are certain (uncertain) propositions that every poet must eventually encounter, if only to embrace or abandon. They are not propositions so much as ways of being, lifestyles; and, like the way one walks, or talks, or just stands in the rain, they are ineluctably intimate parts of ourselves, hence not propositions so much as self-images. What kind of poet do you want to be (I imagine a Bellovian unctuous trickster asking)? What kind of poet are you?

“Oh, she’s an angry poet,” they say, or, “The woman is far too sentimental for my tastes.”

These are cursory judgments, but some kind of truths are lodged in even the most mawkish and unhelpful of sentiments. So let’s begin at the beginning. A poem is a stance, a temperament, a philosophy, an ontologically practical, (if impractical), modus operandi. A vision – not necessarily metaphysical, but a way of looking at things that is that particular poet’s way. The proof? An Ashbery poem is not a Creeley poem. Read an Ashbery poem. You might immediately conclude that Ashbery is a funny poet, a strangely poignant poet, a curiously flat poet, like Warhol, or Clare, a poet of disappointment, a poet whose science entails the combining of words and phrases that, without Ashbery’s florabundant consciousness, would never have been placed together in the first place. Ashbery is a poet of surprise, of flow, a John Cage of language, whereby the chance coincidences of daily stuff form an abstract collage that is life heightened: an aesthetic.

Is Creeley – I’m thinking of early Creeley, from For Love – the (complex) opposite of Ashbery? What do Ashbery and Creeley share besides a certain kind of disappointment, a disillusionment with what Richard Rorty calls “the way things hang together”? For, aside from this initial bewilderment or despair at the way things are – ontologically, epistemologically – Creeley is the poet of the anti-flow, the inept and inert stutter, the desperation of someone who cannot say what he wants to say, so makes a poem out of that. To say that Creeley is funny is like saying that Todd Solondz’s movies are funny. For Creeley’s early poems are often cruel, and to say that they are “funny” is perhaps to say more about your own predilections for mean-spiritedness than, say, Creeley’s.

Still, like Ashberys’ early work, Creeley’s poems are, or at least seem to be, something new. They are not exactly adventures of the imagination, like Ashbery’s; in fact, I wonder if the word “imagination” is even appropriate for discussing Creeley’s early works. For if Ashbery’s philosophy is “Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination,” Creeley’s is, “Perhaps we can’t feel with more imagination.” Yet does that make for a coherent, or even interesting, poetics? If Ashbery’s poems are premised, if distantly, on a hope for the future, a hope for new imaginary communities, a hope for a new way of speaking, Creeley’s poem are cynical about the future, isolated from community, and unable to even speak.

It is for that reason, paradoxically, that they deserve some attention.

For the point of comparison, let’s look at two poems: one by Ashbery, one by Creeley, both with the same titles – “The Hero” – and from their first well-received books – Some Trees, by Ashbery, published in 1956, and For Love, by Creeley, published in 1962. I want to interrogate, foremost, how Ashbery and Creeley conceptualize their heroic figures, for in scrutinizing such humongously important matrices of ideas, we might therefore put our finger on the nerve, not only of what makes these poets so different, but also on how we might characterize and define their individual and idiosyncratic poetic (and therefore philosophic) stances.
Here is Ashbery’s “The Hero,” in full, (and notice the interestingly Creeley-esque form):

Whose face is this
So stiff against the blue trees,

Lifted to the future
Because there is no end?

But that has faded
Like flowers, like the first days

Of good conduct. Visit
The strong man. Pinch him –

There is no end to his
Dislike, the accurate one.

We might start by acknowledging how enigmatic the poem is – even, perhaps, how willfully obscure. Who is the eponymous hero? Is it the “stiff” face, “lifted to the future”? Is it “the strong man”? Is it “the accurate one”? All three? Is the poet himself the hero, and is his stance the one which we might take to be heroic? If so, how would we characterize his stance towards the “hero”?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine that Ashbery’s “hero” in this poem is Robert Creeley. And imagine that Ashbery, like any competitive poet – locked in some regards into a good old fashioned Bloomian agon – wishes to carve out his own poetic voice in contradistinction to Creeley’s. How would this affect our reading of the poem?
First, perhaps Ashbery would be mocking, however quietly, Creeley’s “stiff face,” the unyielding way in which he denies all transcendence – not because Ashbery believes himself in transcendence, but because of the way in which Creeley denies it – so stern, so puritanical, so unbending. The “blue trees” might then be a trope for Ashbery’s poetic persona. In many poems in Some Trees – “Two Scenes,” “Popular Songs,” “The Instruction Manual,” “Meditations of a Parrot,” “Sonnet,” “Le livre est sur la table” – the color blue figures prominently and enigmatically: we hear of “the blue shadow of some paint cans,” “the blue blue mountain,” a “rose-and-blue striped dress (Oh! such shades of rose and blue),” “blue cornflakes in a white bowl,” “the razor, blue with ire,” and a “young man” who “places a bird house / Against the blue sea.” Blue trees are especially poignant, considering that the title poem of the book, “Some Trees,” is about trees as a metaphor for human connection. So maybe equating the blue trees with Ashbery’s poetic persona isn’t as hackneyed as it sounds.

But where does that take us? Is the face “lifted to the future,” or are the trees? Perhaps we might read the second stanza in two ways. If “no end” refers to the trees, then we might read the phrase as a typical self-referential Ashberian commentary on the elasticity of time. But what if it is Creeley’s face – a very distinct one, considering he had only one eye, and occasionally wore an eye-patch – that is raised to the future? Might we then read “no end” in completely different terms, as a kind of complaint, as if to say, “there is no end to my suffering”? We might then have the same tension in the first stanza – Creeley’s face, stiff against the blue trees of Ashbery’s persona – repeated in the second, where Ashbery is ridiculing Creeley’s stance as pompous and self-aggrandizing, as one who laments the endlessness of suffering and who must look (mawkishly), as a result, to the future, where perhaps there will be less pain.

Now let’s follow our divergent readings and see where they take us. If we read the next three lines – “But that has faded / Like flowers, like the first days // Of good conduct” – as more typical Ashberiana, then what we have on our hands is the Ashberian mode of replacing one image as quickly as he can with the next, as if we were reading a Stevens poem set to fast forward. But what if what’s faded – what Ashbery is arguing for – is the Creeleyan poetic stance – the cynicism, the disgusted high-mindedness, the seriousness, the darkness? Is this perhaps the moment at which Ashbery begins carving out his own poetic identity, by critiquing his reading of Creeley’s poetic identity? If so, then we might paraphrase those three lines as saying something along the lines of, “Yet your stance, for all its professed heroicisim and stoicism, has already faded like flowers, or childhood days when we cared about our behavior.” In this sense, Ashbery would be arguing that Creeley’s stance – perhaps like Lowell’s – is outmoded, and therefore not a viable aesthetic, at least for Ashbery.

In the final lines, therefore, we are faced with a massive ambivalence. For it is unclear if “the accurate one” is Ashbery or Creeley. We therefore do not know if this “dislike” is being criticized or commended. If we read “the strong man” as the Creeleyan poetic persona, then we might read the final lines as Ashbery critiquing Creeley’s misanthropic dislike, his fastidious need for accuracy. Yet if we read “the accurate one” as Ashbery, we might read the final lines as a self-critique, with Ashbery uncomfortable with his criticism of the strong man – i.e. the pronoun “his” in the second-to-last line would be Ashbery, and here we would hear Ashbery’s own exasperated sigh with himself. The point is not to find the exact right reading, but rather to call attention to the way in which, in Ashbery’s “The Hero,” these ambivalences are braided together. Yet it seems intriguing, to say the least, that “The Hero” is written in such characteristically Creeleyan form.

Now let’s look at Creeley’s “The Hero,” made up of eleven four-lined stanzas. How does Creeley’s stance towards the hero in his poem differ from Ashbery’s? Here is the whole poem:

Each voice which was asked
spoke its words, and heard
more than that, the fair question,
the onerous burden of the asking.

And so the hero, the
hero! stepped that gracefully
into his redemption, losing
or gaining life thereby.

Now we, now I
ask also, and burdened,
tied down, return
and seek the forest also.

Go forth, go forth,
saith the grandmother, the fire
of that old form, and turns
away from the form.

And the forest is dark,
mist hides it, trees
are dim, but I turn
to my father in the dark.

A spark, that spark of hope
which was burned out long ago,
the tedious echo
of the father image

– which only women bear,
also wear, old men, old cares,
and turn, and again find
the disorder in the mind.

Night is dark like the mind,
my mind is dark like the night.
O light the light! Old
foibles of the right.

Into that pit, now pit of
anywhere, the tears upon your hands,
how can you stand
it, I also turn.

I wear the face, I face
the right, the night, the way,
I go along the path
into the last and only dark,

Hearing hero! hero!
a voice faint enough, a spark,
a glimmer grown dimmer through years
of old, old fears.

The poem begins with the asking of questions – what seem important questions, for those who answer the questions are aware not only of the question themselves, but the “onerous burden” of asking. There is therefore a dialectic that is set up between questioning and asking, both activities which, as the poem continues, are anointed somewhat with heroic status, and given metaphoric clothing as adventures into the dark.

Yet we do not hear of this heroic adventure being undertaken by the hero him or herself. Rather, the hero, who disappears as a figure after the second stanza, and is replaced with the poet himself, does his vague heroic deed, and thereby lives or dies accordingly. Although it is difficult to read the tone of the second stanza, Creeley exhibits a certain sad insouciance towards the hero, as well as a disconnect towards the hero’s fate – i.e., he or she will either live or die, but either way, Creeley seems to be saying, these are the typical conventions of a heroic story, and there is nothing surprising about that. Here the speaker’s relationship to the hero is different from the Ashberian speaker; it is more straightforward, if similarly, though less complexly, ambivalent. In Ashbery’s poem, despite the title, it is never clear just who the hero is, so we are adrift upon a vague ocean of resemblances and concordances; in Creeley’s poem, it is more clear that the hero is the conventional hero of fairy tales, venturing off into the dark forest, but it is also Creeley or the poet himself, venturing similarly into the tangled thickets of memory, to try and devise a way of forming something lasting from this adventure, some redemptive offering, a poem perhaps. In this sense, Creeley’s poem is less ironic than Ashbery’s. It does not truck in a difficult-to-place irony, nor does it use discordant and puzzling imagery that entails a kind of cognitive dissonance for the reader. If anything, Creeley’s imagery – though his style still somewhat beguiles – is largely conventional: we have the hero, the dim dark forest, the grandmother urging the hero out, the father figure, the quest, night and light, the path. This all sounds rather yawn-worthy, however; so what is it that makes Creeley’s poem interesting?

What makes Creeley’s poem interesting is that, for all its stylistic compression, we are given a very standard and conventional narrative; and despite the tone of exhaustion and cynicism we might feel from the speaker towards his subject, Creeley does not revise the heroic quest story very much, or offer very many alternatives. Another way of saying this is that Creeley, and the Black Mountain tradition he emerges from, does not do irony. Creeley’s hero, therefore, is the hero of myth, of fairy tale and folk tale; and we might do well to read much of his work, consequently, in that light – as work in which Creeley posits himself as the conventional male hero figure, and all his various disappointments in love as commentaries on this figuration. This might make some sense, considering Creeley’s later work, where much of his intriguing bitterness is replaced with a kind of lazy contentment that seems to suggest an end-of-the-road poetics, whereby the earlier misanthropy of the young man is replaced with arm-chair speculation and hard-earned domestic satisfaction.

All of which is to say, that Ashbery, after this analysis, strikes me as the more radical poet. His poem takes greater risks – earlier we called it “willfully obscure” – but Ashbery does not seem saddled so much with the desire to be the Promethean quester, searching for the fire, venturing into the forest. He’s way too ironic to take these myths too seriously, although he’s radical enough to substitute new imagery for old. For that reason, if Creeley sees himself as the king of his own narrative, questing after redemption, where he will either live or die, Ashbery once again finds himself in the role of trickster and clown, discombobulating our awareness, turning our attention to his motley theatrics, and poking fun at convention. The New York School, if we wish to place Ashbery in that context, is far, far more ironic. If we wish to understand more deeply the relationship between the Black Mountain poets and the New York school, then, we might start by investigating and interrogating the role that irony plays in much of these poets’ works.

“Whatever it was I had to say,” Charles Wright writes on the first page of Littlefoot (FSG 2007), “I’ve said it.”  Two years later, in 2009, Sestets, his most recent book, came out.

“Instead of going over poems today,” Charles said one day a few years ago as our small, always-awestruck-in-the-presence-of-Charles-Wright class gathered around a seminar table at the University of Virginia, “I’m gonna read you some John Cage.”  He then began to read John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.”

“I am here,” he said, “and there is nothing to say.  If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment. What we re-quire is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking.”

Thank god he does.  If he had nothing to say at the beginning of Littlefoot, a beautiful book-length poem, then he certainly had much more nothing to say in Sestets.  For, in Sestets, we find the God-hunger and dark humor from Wright’s other works—“What’s up, grand architect of the universe?” he writes in “Terrestrial Music”—but in a new form for him, and an interesting contrast to Littlefoot’s length.  Sestets is a book of brief poems, each just six lines long, the brevity of which harkens back to his much earlier work, which is similarly condensed. However, the poems that compose Sestets retain Wright’s signature long and long-winded lines that often split and drop down midway through.

Another distinguishing element of Wright’s work is his titles, which often act as little poems in and of themselves.  One of my all-time favorite examples of this is the poem “If This Is Where God’s At, Why Is That Fish Dead?” from the previous book A Short History of the Shadow. And here in Sestets, this element continues, as we get similarly brilliantly layered titles, such as, “Like the New Moon, My Mother Drifts Through the Night Sky” and “Autumn is Visionary, Summer’s the Same Old Stuff.”  Even “Homage to What’s-His-Name,” wonderfully humorous, opens up to suggest that even the people we most admire we forget when we age and memory falters.  “No one’s remembered much longer than a rock / is remembered beside the road / If he’s lucky or / Some tune or harsh word / uttered in childhood or back in the day,” he writes in “It’s Sweet to Be Remembered,” a title inspired by Lester Flatt.

Many of Wright’s poems are inspired or informed by songs and song lyrics, which contributes to the playfulness of Wright’s work, even as it addresses the direst of last things. “Time Is a Dark Clock, but It Still Strikes from Time to Time” begins, “Whump-di-ump-whump-whump, / tweedilee tweedilee tweedilidee, / I’m happy as can be…” and he means it—I heard him read it once and he went ahead and sang the line.  The poem goes from this playful beginning to an impulse to remember the details about the song, and who sang it, and then a reflection about the faults of memory in the face of lost time, as then settles, as Wright often does, on a heartbreaking ending image:  “Pretty nice, but that was then, / when our hearts were meat on the grill.  // And who was it, Etta James or Ruth Brown or LaVern Baker? / The past is so dark, you need a flashlight to find your own shoes. / But what shoes! and always half an inch off the floor, / your feet like the wind inside them.”

The brilliance of these poems lies in the way they at once comment on human existence in a flawed, rough world while also commenting on poems, songs and art itself, on why art exists, and how.  “The metaphysics of the quotidian is what he was after,” reads the first line of the book, an ars poetica for this book of poems, rife with thoughts and images that occur everyday and often go unrecorded.

Sometimes, when the formal feeling comes after an encounter with the void, after, as Nietzsche would say, we look into the abyss and the abyss looks back into us, we reach out, then, for something that will console us honestly, something that goes beyond apologies for what’s newly missing, beyond the assertion that the person lost has gone to a better place, or that the relationship ruined was all for the best, the easy crutches tossed off at times of loss that actually perplex and paralyze thought.  Wright consoles us for the losses of this world honestly and almost cruelly frank at times—“We live on Orphan Mountain, / each of us, and that’s how it is”—and at other times darkly funny in the language’s colloquial tone.  “We haven’t heard from the void lately,” he writes.  And it’s implied that it’s just a matter of time until we do hear from it again.  And that’s how it is.

And around the workshop table, we listened as Charles went on, reading Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.”  “We need not fear these silences,” he read, “—we may love them.”  This, for those of us in the workshop who felt that we didn’t deserve to be there and still had to turn in each week mediocre poem after mediocre poem, was incredibly consoling to hear Wright say.  And it is something many of us from the workshop, I’m sure, still go back to, just as, I think, Wright must also do during the inevitable silences.

After a loss, there is always a particular kind of silence.  I finished 2010 reading and rereading Sestets using sympathy cards, whose consolations always come up short, as bookmarks.  “Twilight of the Dogs,” a poem almost dead center of the book, begins, “Death is the mother of nothing. / This is a fact of life, / And exponentially sad. / All these years—a lifetime, really—thinking it might be otherwise.”  We get the sense that Wright uses writing as a way of filling the void, of making his way down Via Negativa trying to reconcile his hope of what might be otherwise with what simply is.

John Cage writes, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.”  And we get the sense that Wright’s work comes from a place of urgency, a personal need to be consoled by language, even as it is arranged by him.  And we too need these poems, because, as Wright tells us early on in Sestets, “If you can’t delight in the everyday, / you have no future here. / And if you can, no future either.”  And I’d assert that we need these poems especially in the dead of winter, after what was for many of us a rough year, and at the beginning of a new year whose occurrences remain hidden from where we now stand.  We need these poems especially when “Everything is what it seems to be and a little less.”

Sestets is what it seems to be and a lot more: a small book of small poems that resurrect what they can from the nothingness.  Sestets is Charles Wright at his best, yet again.  Read it with a sympathy card as a bookmark.

I have nothing to say today, or nothing specific, only miscellany, no fashion thing has occurred to me.  Here you have an image of Ferula scorodosma, the plant whose dried sap is used to make asafoetida, a rather pungent spice.  I received a packet of asafoetida in a box of spices given to me as a gift on my recent birthday – it tasted quite good in a stew of lamb’s neck and potatoes, simmered with orange juice and zest and some milk that had been heated up for coffee earlier in the day and left on the stove.

Speaking of nothing to say, I have been thinking this week about ‘Nothing To Say,’ an intensely sprawling poem from Ann Lauterbach‘s latest collection, Or To Begin Again.  The poem takes its title from the opening of John Cage’s ‘Lecture on Nothing.’

But where Cage seems to calmly meditate his absent predicament, Lauterbach tears into hers, into the failings and possibilities of language, deeply felt failings and possibilities.

I have long been a fan of Lauterbach in this mode.  ‘N/est,’ an overlooked poem in On a Stair, moves through variations and meditations on finding a home in the world, and preparing one’s body to be a home, i.e. pregnancy, abortion, figuring out how to speak, figuring out how to write.  Ethical considerations.

These texts, with their prose-like presence on the page, but broken, or rather with verse breaking into them, breaking the prose apart, approach poetry from the outside, expecting everything of it formally, emotionally, musically.  They are not easy to grasp, and are perhaps not meant  to be fully grasped, rather read, and deeply felt.

Enough from me, now some ‘Nothing to Say,’ after this 1977 portrait of Ann Lauterbach by Alex Katz:

the excess of a dream, we who had been speaking mildly to each other following collapse, sipping tea in the tearoom, there, sequestered against those others and their meridians on the char, it was difficult in this setting to notice, although the waitress was an actress, her lips scarlet, but this was only the lure of

glamour, toned muscles of the arm, cleft above the thigh.  Found her there again, walking the horizon, where what was alive and what not alive almost touched, as moments touch, walking now with her sister on the other side of the line which is an illusion, the line, not the sister, she was there, among all the sisters, their chorale in the meadow, now turning now following the path

*******

I also couldn’t resist posting this wonderful footage of Lauterbach in conversation with Grace Paley in 1975.